They went out the way they got here, Anthony Boone throwing one last pass in the end zone to Jamison Crowder, who caught as many balls as anyone in ACC history. Not this one. This one was wrestled away, and with it Duke’s hopes of winning a bowl game for the first time in generations.
The Sun Bowl ended like the previous two Duke bowl appearances, a loss thanks to a game-ending interception, 36-31 to Arizona State on Saturday. Still, losing three straight bowls means you’ve been to three straight bowls, and for a program once as dismal as Duke was, that’s nothing to sneeze at.
The Blue Devils were in it to the final play in this old-schoolest of old-school bowls, in a city that is not only aware a bowl game is being played but truly cares (and buys tickets!), a rare and valuable thing in an era of made-for-TV bowls played to empty stands.
The finish also encapsulates the legacy of this senior class, led by Boone and Crowder, players who committed to Duke when football success was anything but ensured and proceeded to take the Blue Devils this far, against all odds, but could take them no farther.
“I would say how sad I am at this moment, but it’s not about losing,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “It’s about these seniors we love so much leaving this program, that have committed so much energy and enthusiasm.”
They raised the bar so high that they couldn’t quite clear it at the last, victims of their own success: Good enough to turn Duke’s program around, good enough to get Duke into bowl situations, not good enough to win games against bowl-caliber opposition.
They didn’t miss by much – Duke held fourth-quarter leads in the Belk Bowl in 2012, in the Peach Bowl in 2013 and for 18 seconds on Sunday – but just that little bit that makes the difference against the raw talent of teams like Texas A&M or Arizona State.
Crowder was always as legit as they come, hamstrung only by Duke’s inability to get him the ball more often, whether through the air or forcing punts (he returned the only punt he saw Saturday for a 68-yard touchdown), but a few of the others had their inadequacies exposed.
Boone’s won-loss record as a starter was stellar but his chronic inaccuracy caught up with him again Saturday. Isaac Blakeney caught Duke’s final touchdown, an option pass from Crowder, but dropped one pass within sight of the goal line and fumbled away another. And so on.
For the third straight year Duke’s senior class left exhorting the underclassmen to take the next step. Each year, the seniors have pushed the agenda along, raising expectations, setting new standards. That’s the challenge ahead. Again.
The Blue Devils will need to find the next link in the record-setting Donovan Varner-Conner Vernon-Crowder chain at receiver, and the quarterback position is in flux with Boone’s departure (Florida’s Jeff Driskel is a potential transfer solution), but there’s enough young talent elsewhere on the roster to raise hopes that another forward is indeed possible.
Junior Shaq Powell pounded his way to 169 total yards Saturday, with big-play freshman Shaun Wilson in the wings at running back. The entire secondary could return, led by junior safety Jeremy Cash and kick-return threat DeVon Edwards. There are three starters back on the offensive line, injured veterans Kelby Brown and Braxton Deaver returning and two classes of redshirt and incoming freshmen that Cutcliffe raves about.
These seniors helped get Duke to a bowl game, and another, and another, and there’s no underestimating the immensity of that task. Continued progress awaits a senior class capable of exiting with a win.